For the first time in the 43-year history of the Meet of Champions - a high school track-and-field meet hosted by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association and the Newark Star-Ledger - a race was halted because of lightning. Joe Rosa of West Windsor-Plainsboro North High School was ahead of his own state-record pace of 8:44.06 in the boys' 3,200 meters Thursday when lightning struck - quickly followed by controversy.
According to NJ.com: "Rosa, who was at 7:38 on the clock with a lap to go, was building up a run at history when lightning lit up the skies and thunder rang out as heavy rains also started to hit. That prompted meet officials to run onto the track and stop Rosa and the rest of the field from continuing. Rosa and his twin brother Jim, who was right behind, wanted to keep on running. Joe threw his hands up in the air in disbelief when he was met by a wall of officials who prevented him from continuing. A chorus of boos came cascading down from the angry fans." (For video footage of the incident, click here.)
Don Danser, the NJSIAA's track and field tournament director, said he had no choice but to stop the race immediately at 7:24 p.m. and downplayed talk that he should not have started the race in the first place. "I have four spotters looking in every direction and no one detected lightning or thunder in the area when the race started," he said, adding that a lightning detection system was not in use. "But as soon as the lightning and thunder came, we have to stop the meet under the National Track and Field Rules. It's a safety issue. We have fans in aluminum bleachers with lightning overhead. We had to evacuate right away."
Kristin Kline, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Mt. Holly, N.J., located just a few miles from where the Meet of Champions was taking place, supports the NJSIAA's decision. "If lightning was sighted, they definitely made the right call," she told the Rivals High website. "As soon as you see it, that's when you need to take shelter. You can't say, 'We'll be okay for another five minutes.' That's not a safe thing to do. As soon as you see lightning, it is close enough to you to strike the area where you are."
"It's pretty crappy," Jim Rosa told NJ.com. "I guess it's a rule, but we had one lap to go. We should have been able to just finish it."
"This is just bizarre," added Brian Gould, West Windsor-Plainsboro North's coach. "I don't even know what to say. I just can't believe this actually happened."
Joe Rosa, a senior who will run at Stanford University next year, had plenty to say in a far-reaching interview with NJ.com's Jim Lambert on Sunday, including what went through his head when the race was called: "With 200 to go (600 if the race was run its full 3,200), I remember hearing them announce a police order to evacuate the stadium. I was like, I hope they don't cancel the race. That's when I was just starting to pick it up. I was so confused and just looking around at all the people. With, like, 100 meters to go, I tend to look at the track right in front of me, so I didn't really see anything. But then … I looked up and there was just this line of officials. At that point I was just jogging with my hands up, like what's going on. People were yelling at me from the side: Keep going, keep going. And then I saw the officials. I didn't have a lot of time to think about what to do. If I had more time to think about it, I think I probably would have kept going.''
The 3,200 and eight other events were scheduled to be completed Monday night, but the Rosa brothers won't be competing because of their schedule.